Back in February Philip Jones, editor of the trade magazine The Bookseller, wrote:
“The words on the front cover of this week’s issue are not uncontroversial: ‘how to build a bestseller’. There is no single factor that moves the dial when a book is published: the trade is full of examples of books that worked despite almost everything—Harry Potter being perhaps the most famous. Equally, if there really was a template for hit-making then 200,000 books (each equally hopeful) would not have been published last year.
That being said, something in the air has changed. Publishers are becoming increasingly confident about what books work where, and how to maximise their chances.
The book trade is often criticised for publishing too many books with too few resources. But not every bestseller happens by chance. Some are built.”
Waterstones’s blog team took up this challenge and in early July they came up with a construction blueprint. They analysed the ten bestselling books from each of the past ten years for similarities. This is the formula they found:
The bestselling genre is thriller/crime/mystery.
The best selling authors have previously published 13 titles and had won 4 awards
Looking at the DNA of these 100 bestsellers (yes, these days you must analyse the DNA, detail is so pre-Watsonian) the bloggers discovered that 55% of the lead characters are male, 12% of them are detectives or lawyers and 43% have America as the location. Another important factor is being part of a series and having a Film/TV tie-in. On the other hand, it’s not advantageous to base you book on true events or to have mythical characters for only 5 and 8 percent of the bestsellers had these features – nor do bestsellers tend to have political or controversial themes.
And, finally, the bestseller’s title – 84% of bestsellers have a name which contains no verbs. This may seem counterintuitive, especially for action thrillers, but a quick look at the shelves delivered only a couple of “Die”, “Burning”, “Kick” and “Gone” in the titles.
But formulas are not predictive. If you look at the recent bestseller lists there are titles that buck the trend, books like Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train – or Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch.
MsLexia magazine’s analysis of a recent bestseller found that Emma Healey’s Elizabeth Is Missing came up with this tick-list of bestseller qualities: Never-been-done-before protagonist with dementia; popular domestic noir genre; World War II setting; physically attractive young debut author; UEA alumna; publisher bidding frenzy; well structured and well written, lol funny and particularly poignant if you know somebody with dementia.
Summing up: If you’re young and attractive and put the right components together you may hit the jackpot on the first go. Otherwise you may have to produce a dozen titles before the giddy heights are within reach. Or you may be lucky and meet the right person at the right time with the right script ready to go.
EUPHORIA AND AFTER
Did you know that the word euphoria once used to mean well-being produced in a sick person by the use of drugs? And that the use of this word peaked in the latter part of the 20th century. These two facts may or may not be connected.
Writers often experience euphoria when they click on SAVE. I felt it on Monday when the second draft was completed. Oh, the delicious feeling of high, of achievement, of victory – even Genghis Khan didn’t feel this good after the Battle of Badger Mouth, or Napoleon at Austerlitz.
By Tuesday euphoria is gone, like the will-o-the wisp it is. Reality comes knocking and recites harsh truths. This manuscript needs a third draft and then editing. There are four other things you were meant to do by now but you haven’t because you were working on the second draft. And your family and friends are pissed off with you because you’ve been out of touch. Was it worth it, anyway? Do you really think it’s any good? Who’d want to read it – even if you ever finish it? Is it just another 73K words of indifferent prose like 80% of the stuff already in the bookshops?
Reality hammers on and I buckle down and play catch-up with the backlog. And when that’s cleared I’ll pick up the second draft and a blue pen and start marking. I don’t care what Reality says, write I must.
HORSES FOR COURSES
Are authors born with the talent to write or can you teach creative writing? This perennial question crops up at least once a year and will continue to do so since I can’t imagine that it could ever be settled, one way or the other.
A few weeks ago a literary agent – who didn’t want to be named – wrote that:
The writing school at the University of East Anglia was set up 45 years ago and since then there has been an amazing proliferation of writing courses. Every second-rate university the in country has one, yet has the quality of literature increased? Have we not, in fact, seen what might be called (apologies to Jessie Burton) a Miniaturisation of literary culture: middlebrow being passed off as literary? It is impossible to point to an improvement in the literary scene.
Being in the profession I suppose the agent knows what’s going on – but isn’t that pointing finger aimed at the wrong target? Surely creative writing courses do not determine what is being published? Or are we to assume that publishers & agents have stopped scouting for talent and simply ask universities to send in the cream of the course?
My understanding is that publishers, very much, would like to publish books that people want to buy and read. They don’t always get it right but no publisher in their right mind is going to think, “Hmm, this submission is not really very well written but the author has MA in Creative Writing from a first-rate university so it must be OK.”
The fact is that readers vote with cash or click. If they wanted “highbrow” literature they’d buy it. And some do. Others, in far greater numbers, go for the next bestseller by their favourite author or in their preferred genre – without asking if the author has been to a writing course, so nothing new there. The difference, maybe, is that there was a time when readers wanted to appear “highbrow” and didn’t want to reveal that they were enjoying a trashy novel rather than reading Proust in French. Now, if snobbery still exists, it’s as often inverted as not.
Without any statistical evidence I claim that since the printing made mass production possible there has always been a lot of books that are not very good and many that are very good indeed. And then there are some which are so good that they make it feel worthwhile to have read all the others to get to this special book.
And I think that’s what the anonymous agent should have been ranting about – that people should read more. Not for the benefit of the publishing industry or the authors (although they’d be grateful) but because it gives so much pleasure.
COOKING A BOOK
Watching Masterchef on TV made me think that trying to put together a good dish is not much different from trying to write a book.
To begin with you have an idea, the first inkling or an ingredient. It might be a character or an event, the opening scene or the clever twist in the end. With a dish you might start with an inspiration for a stuffed chicken breast or tenderloin; a new way with fennel or the mouthwatering memory of gently roasted shallots. Or it can be more prosaic; inspiration comes from looking into the fridge and the larder or, in case of a book, by looking at old notes or shifting through a box file of cuttings.
If you’re an experienced cook you know how to pace things, how to get each part of the dish ready at the right moment, so that nothing is overdone and nothing is undercooked – just like a good writer knows how long to stay with a scene, how much to reveal, how much and when to hold back. A cook chooses and combines ingredients just like a writer picks characters, locations and settings. Both the author and the cook need to decide what they are trying to accomplish, what the dish, the book, is about. When all goes well both the book and the dish can end up being a happy marriage of technique and imagination.
The Masterchef voiceover tells us that this is the competition every good cook thinks they can win. For every aspiring author the equivalent is getting a book deal – and each of us thinks we’re in with a chance. When we’re cooking / writing everything is still possible. Our dish / book could be the most enjoyable offering ever made. The one thing that makes people afterwards sit back and sigh “That was so good.”
When the time’s up, when we think it’s finished and ready, we place our offering in front of the judges – the critics, the agents, the editors – and wait anxiously for their verdict. Again, with dishes just like with books, opinion can be split. One of them likes this part, the other hates it. Somebody thinks the cooking is sound but the combination of flavours is unsuccessful. Another loves the flavours but thinks there’s too much of everything.
And all too often whether you win or lose does not necessarily depend on how good you are but on what else is on offer. One perfect little dish can be lost in the lavish literary buffett of life, with thousands of new titles published every month.
Let’s eat & read.
THWARTED AND DISCOMBOBULATED
There’s a plethora of words to describe inability to write. The most common for professionals (writers, not medics or academics) is writers block.
Other words are more specific – agraphia, for example, is usually caused by motor dysfunction, when the brain orders but the hand won’t obey, kind of situation.
Or there’s aphasia, being lost for words or failing to find them.
But what is the word, what is the episode or condition I’ve suffered in these past few weeks? What do you call it when the words whirr busily round your head, sentences are formed, ideas for plotlines and characters keep coming but there’s no time, no opportunity to write them down?
It is hell. Did Dante have a little corner of Inferno reserved for frustrated writers? Limbo, maybe? Or Purgatory – isn’t there a description that goes: “The souls of the wrathful walk around in acrid smoke”. I certainly get wrathful when I can’t write and I do feel as if I’m puffing out acrid smoke.
So what’s been stopping me from writing?
The pressing need to clear my workspace for urgent renovations, that’s what. “Clearing” doesn’t mean rediscovering the surface of the desk or filing paperwork. It means stripping the room completely, including carpet, underlay, notice board and telephone wires. It means transferring a couple of thousand books from lower ground floor to the attic, pulling apart the bookshelves and taking them to be burned. It means having to admit I’m a hoarder of articles and newspaper cuttings. It means discovering that an old wooden trunk is no longer full of treasured bits of cloth, waiting to be transformed into charming quilts. It’s now full of mouldy and dampish fabric. And realising that the attic room is too small and I need to hire a storage unit for a couple of months. For when the renovations are finished I have to do it all over again, in reverse.
And then there was the reconfiguring of telecommunications, the bitterest pill of all. For thanks to BT we lost Internet for a week. Of course I could live without Internet but I don’t want to, it’s too expletively inconvenient.
Enough emotion on the page
I was stunned to hear that A Reader felt my protagonist wasn’t displaying enough emotion. Really? The woman is falling apart, man. She’s experiencing a series of life changing events, all in one Sunday morning. I’d have thought there’s hardly anything but emotion on those pages – apart from a murder and adultery and some unpleasant revelations regarding her grown-up children.
While never backward with facing my shortcomings I decided to postpone the edit and visit my bookshelves first, to check how the past masters have done the emotional stuff.
Jane Eyre has plucked the readers’ heartstrings for a good 168 years so this must be emotion made to last. Here’s Jane struggling to come to terms with the news that her adored Mr Rochester is planning to marry another woman. The message is sheer moral rectitude, of yielding Self to the Loved One.
If [Miss Ingram] had managed the victory at once, and he had yielded and sincerely laid his heart at her feet, I should have covered my face, turned to the wall, and (figuratively) have died to them. If Miss Ingram had been a good and noble woman, endowed with force, fervor, kindness, sense, I should have had one vital struggle with two tigers – jealousy and despair: then, my heart torn out and devoured, I should have admired her – acknowledge her excellence, and been quiet for the rest of my days.
A hundred years later Nigel Balchin gives us as an agonizing portrayal of a cuckolded man as I’ve ever read (Separate Lies). Is it because this is a man writing about a man, in the 1950s England, why emotions are so well in check?
It is always very awkward when you don’t feel as strongly about something as you should. I knew a man who suddenly realised that he was bored at his mother’s funeral, and never really liked himself much afterwards. I wasn’t bored by the fact that Jill had been unfaithful to me, but neither was I properly hurt and angry and humiliated. I have never quite seen why, but in fact I was merely irritated. My main feeling was that it was just the sort of damn silly thing Jill would do, and that it was about time she grew up.
Moving on, it’s now 2014 and Lucie Whitehouse (Before We Met) has given us a truly recognizable modern woman in Hannah who has discovered that her ostensibly successful and wealthy husband has blundered her savings before disappearing.
In the kitchen Hannah stood at the sink and downed three Aspirin with a large glass of water. Mixed with the shock and hurt was another feeling now: fear. Yes, she admitted to herself, she was afraid. What the hell was going on? If Mark needed her money so badly, why hadn’t he just asked for it? They were married, they loved each other, didn’t they? They were supposed to be a team, to support each other. If he’d asked her for it, she would have given it to him straight away. Why just take it like this unless he didn’t want to tell her the reason – or couldn’t?
What is common with these three shining examples, I see now, is that they reveal facts of the protagonist’s character to the reader, helping us to understand them better and more fully. Jane Eyre describes the ideal woman for Mr Rochester – the kind of woman Jane herself wants to be.
They also intimate what’s in store: Nigel Balchin’s James will be properly hurt and utterly humiliated before Jill is finished with him. And Hannah is beginning to understand that the man she married is not the man with whom she fell in love.
So, now to work with my own edit, with a note to self: the important bit about emotion is not how it feels but what it means.
Writers’ workshops are like swimming in cold water – the more you practice the more hardened you get. (In case you haven’t experienced this form of self-punishment writing workshops usually entail a group of writers criticizing each other’s work.)
The first dip is always the worst. As long as you keep your writing private it remains quite wonderful but other eyes will always find imperfections.
The most important thing to bear in mind is that these people are READERS. Well, obviously not real readers in the sense that they haven’t voluntarily handed over good money to read my fiction, but readers they are, all the same. And writers need readers; any author who says otherwise is in denial.
Readers must be respected. Their comments may not please me, they may be talking complete codswallop or it may be a personal attack but they are reacting to something I wrote. A reader may be an idiot who doesn’t understand what I’m trying to say – or, possibly (however unlikely), I didn’t say it well enough.
A reader will always bring their own set of ideas into the reading. Once I wanted to portray a character having an unthinkingly casual racist attitude and had her saying: “She was dark – I don’t mean she was a darkie, I mean she had dark hair.” This scandalized a reader. ‘You can’t say that. You can’t use that word, it’s racist.’ I nodded and felt I’d succeeded in my characterization.
But on another occasion I was left in a quandary. I had a policeman chatting with a colleague: “There’s a tramp usually sleeping in that doorway.” A reader corrected me. ‘They are not tramps. They’re rough sleepers.’
That did make me think and I spent a long time listening to versions of “The Lady is a Tramp” and reading about Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp”. Is “tramp” a derogatory term or not? I wouldn’t be offended if I was called either a lady or tramp but then I’m neither. Is it something a policeman might say to a colleague or would it imply he’d skipped the diversity & respect seminars – or is quite old?
In the end I took comfort in the Urban Dictionary’s definition:
A woman lies around and sleeps; a tramp sleeps around and lies.